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American Indian Law: A Beginner's Guide


Federal statutes are the primary mechanism used by the federal government to regulate Indian affairs. Many hundreds of federal statutes govern American Indian law on a range of issues affecting every facet of life. Below you will find selected statutes that have shaped major topics in modern American Indian law, along with links to related resources.


The laws listed here do not provide an exhaustive listing of all relevant legislation involving American Indian law. For more information on this topic, you can browse the United States Code, Title 25, or consult the resources in the tabbed box at the bottom of this page.

Indian Reorganization Act (IRA)

Sometimes referred to as the "Indian New Deal," the IRA was a turning point in United States-tribal relations that focused on Indian self-government. Much of the statute's provisions involve tribal lands, such as sections indefinitely extending the trust status of American Indian lands, with the federal government serving as trustee; the creation of a program for the Secretary of the Interior to purchase lands for the benefit of Indians; and the granting of the Secretary of the Interior the authority to establish new Indian reservations. This statute also encourages Indian tribes to create tribal governments styled after the federal three-branch system, tribal constitutions (subject to the Secretary of the Interior's approval), and corporate charters to manage tribal economic operations.

Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA)

Originally enacted in 1968, this law prohibits tribal governments from creating or enforcing laws that violate certain individual rights, similar to the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights. The law protects freedom of religion and speech, prohibits double jeopardy, and prevents defendants in criminal cases from self-incrimination, among other provisions. This statute also grants federal courts the ability to intervene in intra-tribal disputes to enforce the law.

Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA)

The 1975 ISDEAA gives Indian tribes the authority to contract with the federal government to operate programs serving their tribal members and other eligible persons. The act's congressional declaration of policy notes the federal government's commitment "to supporting and assisting Indian tribes in the development of strong and stable tribal governments, capable of administering quality programs and developing the economies of their respective communities." To that end, the law creates a mechanism for Indian tribes to contract with the federal government to provide their own educational services, which were formerly overseen by the United States.

Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)

This law was enacted in response to Indian children being disproportionately removed from their homes, and placed into non-Indian homes, in child custody proceedings. ICWA's stated purpose is "to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture, and by providing for assistance to Indian tribes in the operation of child and family service programs." Some of the ways that ICWA governs state child-custody proceedings include recognizing tribal jurisdiction over decisions for their Indian children; establishing preferences for placement of Indian children with extended family or other tribal families; taking "active efforts" to maintain or reunite an Indian child with their family; and instituting protections to ensure that a birth parent's voluntary relinquishment of their children is truly voluntary.

Legislative Resources

Below you will find a list of selected legal reference materials relating to American Indian legislation from the Law Library's collection.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional digital content are provided when available.

The following resources link to freely available online resources regarding legislation relating to American Indian law.

The following resources link to research guides created by the Law Library of Congress on the topic of federal legislative research.